What is your strongest memory? I don’t mean your favorite memory. I mean your strongest. The type of memory that creeps to the front of your mind when you’re alone. The type when it’s quiet and you feel as if you can hear the actual memory trying to get loose and be heard.
For me it was a day that I had 5mg (milligrams) of morphine pushed straight into my heart (Editor’s Note: The morphine injected into Steven’s body was through his mediport in order to rapidly relieve him of severe pain). I don’t recall anything other then how it made me feel: a sensation that every cell in my body was feeling pure ecstasy. That is all I remember. This is my strongest memory.
This is what crawls back into my mind when it’s quiet. It is my memory that I feel scratching at the inside of my head begging to be remembered. This memory has affected me more than I would have ever cared to admit, until now.
My name is Steven Giallourakis and I am a drug addict.
I was 16 years old the first time I realized that I was a drug addict. I obviously didn’t admit this to myself until couple of years later. I don’t recall the exact day, but my father was asleep on his leather chair. My mom had already gone to bed and I didn’t feel well.
I felt very alone and very sad.
Two months earlier I had just finished my treatment for my first cancer. It was a 10-month journey filled with two spine surgeries, countless chemotherapy treatments and five weeks of radiation. During those 10-months I developed a fondness for my pain medication. I didn’t have that much pain that night, but I was sad and feeling alone.
Morphine can be a lonely person’s best friend. It’s a like a warm blanket that encompasses every inch of your body. Unfortunately, that night I misplaced my morphine pills. I first looked in my bin of drugs to see if I left them in there. Then I searched my bathroom and my brother’s room and then my parents’ bathroom. I found myself back in my room tearing it apart. My heart was pounding through my chest. I thought to myself, “where in the hell did I put them?”. I turned my room inside out trying to find them.
Then I looked in the mirror and saw what I looked like. I looked like a mad man. I was panting and sweating. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. What was happening to me? Why was I doing this? I decided to lay down. I tried to calm myself. I shut my eyes, but the silence was deafening. All I could hear were my own thoughts. As if my insides were crying out for a sweet release from this internal pain. After hours of feeling like this I managed to fall asleep.
That night would be marked as the beginning of my abusive romance with opioids.
This romance would last the next 10 years. The effects of my addiction echoed throughout my life during that time. It affected everything from my schooling to my relationships.
In my early twenties my drug use was at its most rampant. I had just finished treatment for my second cancer. I was suffering immense amounts of pain due to my Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD). For those of you whom are unfamiliar with GVHD let me explain. When someone has a bone marrow transplant, the immune cells that grow might not be used to your body. When they are not used to your body, they are essentially many dogs in a new house. It’s not that they don’t want to be there, they just aren’t used to the house. So, the dog pisses, shits and nibbles on everything. Now imagine the dogs are your immune cells and the house is your body. That is GVHD.
Because of my pain, I was being prescribed essentially any drug I wanted. I was being prescribed monthly doses of Percocet. I was essentially stoned for an entire year. I was taking 2.5mg/325mg Oxycodone HCl, acetaminophen (Percocet) every 4 to 6 hours…for a whole year.
Let me tell you, it was one of the favorite years of my life, but it was also one of my most lonely years of my life. Living alone I had no one around to really see what I was up to. When I wasn’t throwing parties in my apartment I was stoned. All I wanted was to not feel the way I did. My body was crying out for relief and my mind was simply trying to cope with the physical and emotional anguish I was experiencing.
I felt so alone. I was unable to put to words what I was feeling. It was during this year that I first thought of taking my own life.
I never imagined I would even contemplate suicide but let me tell you, the sweet repose of death seemed very alluring. I never actually planned anything, but the thought would reside in my mind from time to time. This type of drug use and emotional struggle would continue for the next couple of years.
It wasn’t until I was 23 years old that someone finally spoke up about my drug use. I was dating a very nice girl. She had also been through some things in her life that allowed her an intimate look at drug addiction. She had someone very close to her have problems with drugs. So, when she was dating me she picked up on the signs of my drug use very quickly. It was this first time my drug use would end a relationship for me. She told me that I was on my way to being out of control and that she couldn’t watch or be with someone else that has these issues. I don’t recall being too receptive. Truthfully though she might be able to tell you more accurately what happened because I was probably stoned when we talked.
During this time, I was also struggling with school. My brain was having a hard time handling the type of stress that school throws at you. Halfway through every semester the same thing would happen to me. My stress would build, and I would take drugs to cope. I didn’t know how to handle real life and because of that I struggled in school. My grades reflected this trend. If I finished a class, I got a good grade. However, I rarely finished a class. I usually ended up with a “W” for withdrawing during the semester.
After having this happen so many times, I was suspended from school. I had been struggling to get through school ever since my second cancer. That was six years at this point from my first cancer. Six years of staying in the exact same fucking place. Six years of watching the world pass me by. It was in that moment that I felt more lost than ever, and yet in this moment someone would emerge to help me.
I reconnected with someone I had known since I was a young boy. We spent the next two years talking and spending a few wonderful moments together. She would become the greatest love of my life. It was only with her by my side that I was able to step back from school and reevaluate my life.
During this first two years of our relationship I still struggled mightily with my addiction. She would take the brunt of my addiction for those two years. I would forget so many things we talked about. I would forget I needed to pick her up from places or take her places. The worst is I would take my meds just before bed so I could enjoy the high at a quiet time of night. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t sleep and then I would miss taking her to work.
Over the course of those two years she helped me understand my addiction in order to tame it. However, as we all know, one can’t change unless one wants too. I didn’t want to. I remember thinking “I have my addiction under control”. I did not have my addiction under control. It wasn’t until a specific incident occurred that made me really want to change.
In February of 2016, I went to my palliative care doctor. I live in Ohio and just three months prior medical marijuana had become legal. I came into my doctor’s office to inquire about the new law and what it meant for people like me. The appointment did not go the way I thought it would. After inquiring my doctor gave me a rather unexpected response. He told me that there was no evidence to suggest that marijuana would help. Also, that my best bet was to try and pick up some pot from some bum on a street corner…yes my doctor said that to me.
Before I even had a chance to be outraged, his Fellow handed me three one-month prescriptions for my favorite opioid Nucynta. I hadn’t even asked for any drugs, I just was asking about medical marijuana! They had them already filled out the prescription before I walked into the office.
In that moment I felt so betrayed. I felt like my doctor had no care about what was in my best interest. I tore up the prescription and told him that he was the reason why we had an opioid epidemic in our country. I left his office that day swearing I would never go back. More importantly I thought to myself, I will never take another opioid ever again.
Since that day in my doctor’s office, I have not touched an opioid. The struggle to stay sober has been much more difficult then I ever could have imagined. I have gone through withdrawal before. I have had those terrible night sweats and I have had days where there is nothing, I can do to satiate that craving: Where every second of my body is burning from the inside out and all I want is the sweet release from this agony.
I am now in an entirely different battle to stay sober. The first year was by far the worst. I hadn’t really talked to my doctors about what I was trying to do. I did not have the support that I initially needed to succeed. Thankfully my fiancé at the time, was incredibly supportive. I would have nights where I would begin to ruminate. One way to calm down for me was to play chess. My fiancé knew how much I loved to play chess with her and she would grab the board. She would play with me no matter how late it was. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have made it through that first year.
I am not out of the woods yet when it comes to my addiction. I may not take opioids anymore, but I do feel that my addiction crops up in other ways. Sometimes I feel as if my addiction is more like a parasite than anything else. Every time I think I have it under control it evolves. I find myself using a little bit too much marijuana at times. I also tend to get some of the most incredible cravings for certain foods and at times it can be truly debilitating.
Simple tasks can become so hard to do. I have days where I just freeze. My mind becomes stuck in the mud and I will begin to pace back and forth…slightly convulsing, I feel as if I am having a battle with myself. I have to yell and convince my inner self that we are stronger then this. That I am stronger then this illness and that I am not a piece of shit.
Physical death aside, I find there is no worse thing that looking in the mirror and realizing how much you are wasting. When you realize how much time and money you have thrown away because of this. When you look at yourself and realize that nothing will change all the lies you have told. If you are lucky, you won’t end up in a place like this alone. I pray that you are as lucky as I am.
The reason I can tell this story is for one simple reason. I asked for help. This is not something I did on my own. I had the love and support from my family and friends. I had a fiancé who pushed me to go back to my psychiatrist. At the end of that first year I started seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist regularly. What I began to realize was that my addiction was tied directly to my depression.
I began to learn more about my depression and my addiction. I began to see a pattern in my cravings and I dare say that my depression is the cause of my drug addiction. When I am feeling good and not depressed, I don’t have cravings. If I miss a dose of my anti-depressants like a jackass, I get cravings.
The reality of all of this is that my addiction will never fully go away and neither will my depression. I can however manage my depression which in return will keep my addiction at bay. This has and will continue to take hard work. I have to keep seeing my doctors and need to keep taking my medication. This type of treatment is working for me.
I can’t say that it will work for you but if you have an addiction and/or depression talk to people that you know and love you. It is okay to ask for help. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Asking for help actuality it means you are strong.